You are a Roman
Published 09 Mar 2017
68 days ago I said goodbye to my friends, my wife Laeticia Sidonia and Caius Brutus, my mentor. I remember him advising me regarding the perils of such a journey, but also repeating “Veni Vidi Vici” which means that a common Roman citizen can conquer the cultural treasures of the places he visits, with his eyes and spirit, as Julius Caesar did before in full glory with his army. Under Cesar’s protection, in year 128 AD, I started my journey to yet another corner of the Roman oyster, the legendary land of the Helens. I have been amazed to see that Greece is a melting pot of Barbars and noblemen, that the Latin spoken here can vary from the most pitiful Latina Vulgaris ever heard to the flawless type spoken by the eldest in our Senate. As the Roman elite, the Greek intellectuals are very cultured and rest dignified in any discussion; and they are updates with everything that is happening in the Roman Empire; In contrast to the Roman spirit of Law and realism, the Greeks tend to wander in mythologies and superstition quite a lot, and mixing affairs of state with omens from oracles is quite to their taste. I am beautifully amazed by the richness of their imagination and culture, though I prefer the pragmatism of my own roots.
I came to understand why Greece is culturally, the root of the great Roman civilization. The spiritual and artistic life of the Helens is in big lines similar to ours, lacking of course the faultless glory of our Empire and the sharp spirit of affairs that led the Romans to be the conquerors of the world. But when I see the Greek Corinth ornaments, statues, their temples, the spotless beauty of the Pantheon and of the Acropolis, the godly and distant perfection of their arts and verses, I think Greece is our artistic sister and we should learn from its beauty, as we have been for many centuries.
I am now in Athens, visiting the exceptional educational cradle founded by two great forefathers of Roman philosophy: Aristotle’s Lyceum and Plato’s Academy. I have met many Roman disciples there, pursuing their courses in rhetoric, politics, logics and the great art of reaching the truth by debating. All of our politicians, senators and Law experts back in Rome use the Socrates’ lines of dialectics, to convey their message logically through “an argument or exposition that systematically weighs contradictory facts or ideas with a view to the resolution of their real or apparent contradictions” and thus to convince the audience of their point.
I have seen the Colossus of Rhodes, the Ruins of Troy, the Oracle of Delphi and this made me think of the greatest Greek bard, Homer – compared to our most cherished author, Virgil. Beautiful epic poems, Homer’s Iliad finds a grand counterpart in Virgil’s Aeneid. The heroes, lead by wit, humors and conflicting gods participate to the making and unmaking of great civilizations. They all affront armies, supernatural powers, and hostile destiny to achieve a honorary goal. There are similar values driving the heroes: Achilles’s code of honor and pride, or Aeneas’s oath to find the predestined home against all odds. However, Greek literature has a tendency for tragedy, while the Latin for the heroic and more human side of the conflicts. Both heroes have similar motivations for their adventures, i.e. the honor, the duty, the kingdom. But Homer’s fiction world is subject to the caprices of gods who kneel down the men, while Virgil’s scope is to reveal human force despite (super)natural traps. The balance is not righted during Achilles’ existence, pessimistically symbolizing the hero’s existential defeat. In contrast, Aeneas symbolically shows the optimistic future of the Roman Empire, e.g. the legend of Romulus and Remus, Caesar’s victories. I find the mentalities of two peoples well encrypted in here and say “Ave, Caesar, history reveals the truth.”
I found the same considerable symbols in Greek arts, when I saw that Roman arts have significantly derived from the Greek patterns. Undoubtedly the hallmark of beauty and harmony of details, Greek sculpture is a monument of purity, perfection and formality. I saw the very Canon of all arts, the statue in which Polyclitus the Greek computed all the perfection of the parts to achieve the flawlessness of the whole. When an expression reaches perfection, it becomes the effigy of any artist. I saw The Cannon cast in bronze, a spear bearer of perfect proportions, in contraposto, the body a bit twisted to show relief and dynamism.
Roman artists have often copied the Greek works, have imported and bought them to adorn our temples and homes, have imitated them but we have also slowly moved towards something imperfect, but different, i.e. portraiture. Already knowledgeable of the principles of formal perfection (embodied by Polyclitus’s Cannon, in my view), the Roman artists have started working on individual expression. My reference is the statue of Augustus of Primaporta, which adopted the Greek canons of contraposto, the implicit movement of an anatomically perfect figure. But in contrast to the unearthly, ideal expression of “The Canon”, Augustus is given historical and individual depth, as well as the uniqueness of a great man’s biography translated into his face lines, the strength of his look, the ample idological gesture, the unsaid orders radiating from his lips, the beauty of their personalized uniform. Essentially, as a scholar said, Greek sculpture emphasizes “idealism and universality”, while Roman visual art is more personalized: it “emphasizes the particular rather than the universal”.
Breathtakingly, two civilizations so alike and yet so different. I have discovered so much about myself and my kind by seeing another culture, tightly carved into the glorious Roman one. However, now that I write about all these discoveries, I have to wonder what will they write in the future about. I wonder what will be said about the most victorious empire since the birth of Jupiter.
- Augustus of Prima Porta. (2007, September 26). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
- Homer (1999). The Illiad. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: the Western Traditon-7th Edition. Ed. Mack Maynard. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
- Oz ,Tracey (2006, November 28). Ancient Greece. Viewed October 10, 2007, from http://www.teacheroz.com/greeks.html.
- Perrottet, Tony (2002). Route 66 A.D.: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. New York : Random House.
- Polykleitos. (2007, September 26). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
- Virgil. (1999). The Aeneid. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: the Western Traditon-7th Edition. Ed. Mack Maynard. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.